hard rock

REVIEW: Loudness – Hurricane Eyes (1987, 2017 30th anniversary 5 CD reissue)

LOUDNESS – Hurricane Eyes – 30th Anniversary Limited Edition (originally 1987, 2017 Warner Japan)

In most timelines and biographies, they’ll have you believe that the original lineup of Loudness had already peaked by 1987 and were creatively and commercially going downhill.  While the commercial side of things was out of their control, creatively Loudness were still writing great songs.  Though they did have one more EP in them, Hurricane Eyes is the final album of the original Minoru Niihara era of Loudness.  It was recorded by Kiss and Jimi Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer with one track by Andy Johns.  Though not as heavy or complex as Disillusion or noteworthy as Thunder in the East, it is thoroughly enjoyable from side A to side B.  The commercial bent is obvious on some songs, but it doesn’t really blunt the impact.

Like most Loudness albums from the classic era, the band recorded lyrics in both English and Japanese and both versions of the album are included in this luxurious 5 CD box set.  In Japan, the Loudness catalogue has been treated reverently but this is the beefiest of all their deluxe sets.  Along with both versions of Hurricane Eyes (including minor musical differences), the set includes a disc of album demos, and another disc of alternate mixes and rhythm tracks.  The fifth CD is a live set from the Hammersmith Odeon from 1986.  Like any set of this nature, you’ll be listening to the same songs in four or five versions, but fortunately they stand up to such immersion.

Though Hurricane Eyes represents a peak effort to break into the American market, and some songs verge on Dokken homages, it’s a strong album loaded with hooks and enviable guitar theatrics & riffs.  And regardless of some of the more radio-friendly material, it also boasts the thrash-like “S.D.I.”, a speed metal riff-fest that remained in the Loudness set list long after after Minoru was let go.  The technical playing on “S.D.I.” is outstanding, and that’s laid bare for you to hear in the instrumental mix on Disc 4.  The guitar solo is pure Eddie meets Yngwie.  “S.D.I.” opens the English version of the album, but closes the Japanese.  It works excellently in either configuration.

The English album continues with “This Lonely Heart”, a hook-laden hard rocker anchored by a solid riff and soaring chorus.  Lynch and Dokken must have been jealous they didn’t write it because it’s right up their alley.  The album title Hurricane Eyes comes from a lyric in “This Lonely Heart” but what you’ll remember mostly is that indelible chorus.  Keyboards are poured into “Rock ‘N Roll Gypsy”, an obvious choice for a radio single.  Though it didn’t hit the charts you can certainly hear the effort in it.  On the Japanese version of the track, the keyboards are present but not mixed in as prominently.  It’s the better of the two mixes, with more of that Akira Takasaki guitar up front.

“In My Dreams” is the first power ballad, with focus on the power part.  Akari has some sweet anthemic guitar melodies in his pocket for this very Scorpions-sounding track.  This gives way to another blitz of a song, though not as over the top as “S.D.I.” was.  “Take Me Home” has similar urgency but more deliberate pace.  “Strike of the Sword” is in similar metal territory with a fab Akari riff.  The vocal melodies sound a little disconnected from the song though.

Don Dokken’s turf is revisited on “Rock This Way”, a mid-tempo ditty within hit territory.  You could imagine this being written for the concert stage, so you can have a singalong chorus — “Rock this way!”  Picking up the pace, “In This World Beyond” is a bit more complex though retaining an insanely cool chorus.  The Loudness guys really developed an absurdly good chorus-writing ability by this point!  But stick around to be strafed out of the sky by Akira’s machine-gun solo.  “Hungry Hunter” returns us to mid-tempo rock ground, though it’s not their most remarkable song.

The American album ends with “So Lonely”, a re-recording of “Ares’ Lament” from 1984’s Disillusion, also in the closing position.  Disillusion didn’t get a lot of attention outside Japan, and “Ares’ Lament” was a clear highlight.  Though the structure is essentially the same, “So Lonely” is a tamed version” of the more traditional metal original.  Keyboards are added, replacing the Akira-shred of the original.  The chorus is beefed up and placed front-and-center.  It suits Hurricane Eyes and though it’s merely a blunted version, it’s still quite excellent.  It’s a demonstration of how you can take a song and tweak it into a different direction.

“So Lonely” isn’t present on the demo CD, presumably because they didn’t need to demo their own classic tune.  Instead there are two tracks that didn’t make the album, but would be finished in the future:  “Jealousy” and “Love Toys”.  The 1988 Jealousy EP would see the first track released (but only in Japan).  This is the most Dokken of all the songs, with one of those concrete riffs that George Lynch was prone to writing with ease.  Maybe when Dokken broke up, Don should have given Akira Takasaki a phone call.  The more frantic and metal “Love Toys” was revisited in 1991 with new lead singer Mike Vescera, for the On The Prowl album of re-recordings.  Both tracks had potential in the unfinished demo stage.  In fact all the Loudness demos on this disc are nearly album-ready.  They’re rougher but also appealing for that same reason.

Disc 4, Behind the Hurricane Eyes is a hodgepodge of alternate mixes and rhythm tracks.  The eight rhythm tracks (essentially mixes without vocals and solos) include another version of “Love Toys”.  The mercilessly tight rhythm section of Munetaka Huguchi and Masayoshi Yamashita come to the fore on these tracks, as does Akira Takasaki as the riffmaster.  “S.D.I.” is present on this CD twice, in rhythm track form and as a straight instrumental.  You will be getting plenty of “S.D.I.” in this box set!  You’ll also enjoy the brighter “Top 40 Mix” of “Rock This Way”, a really good remix that sounds perfect for the hits of the era.  A mix of “So Lonely” with an earlier fade-out isn’t that interesting, but still desired by the collector.  “Hungry Hunter” and “This Lonely Heart” are present in “old mix” and “rough mix” respectively.  Differences are minor.

You could find yourself with a bit of ear fatigue after hearing so many versions of the same songs.  Fortunately Disc 5 is a live set from the previous tour with none of the same songs.  Buckle up.  Opening for Saxon at the Hammersmith Odeon, Loudness went straight into “Crazy Doctor” from Disillusion after a glowing intro from Biff Byford.  It’s right to the throat from the start and this CD has their full set.  “1000 Eyes” from Lightning Strikes follows, the album for which they were touring.  Loudness could have used some backing vocals live to beef up the chorus, but Minoru does a remarkable job on his own, givin’ ‘er all over the place.  It’s also cool to hear Akira go from rhythm to lead so effortlessly live.

There is honestly something charming about someone who isn’t a native English speaker really giving their all to talk to an audience in English.  Minoru is clearly happy to be in “London rock and roll city!” and the audience lets him know he’s welcome.  The awesome “Dark Desire”, also from Lightning Strikes, follows and Akira lays down a mesmerising solo.  Then a long dramatic intro opens “Ashes in the Sky / Shadows of War”, a highpoint of an already great set.

The big Loudness single in 1986 was “Let It Go“, a truly special pop metal song.  This version opening for Saxon at the Hammersmith might be the best live recording if not the most energetic.  Afterwards the late Munetaka Higuchi takes a drum solo (presumably to give Minoru’s voice a rest after this workout!).  There’s a brief segue into Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Minoru introduces the band.  That pumps up the crowd for Loudness’ biggest hit “Crazy Nights” complete with crowd singalong.  “MZA!”  After smoking through this one, Akira takes a blistering solo break.  The set closes with “Speed” from their third album The Law of Devil’s Land.  They saved the most aggressive song for last.  Couldn’t let Saxon have it too easy, right?

Though hard to get, these Loudness deluxe editions from Japan are really beautiful to hold in hand.  The thick booklet is printed on glossy paper, and though the liner notes are in Japanese, lyrics are provided in both languages.  The rest of the booklet is stuffed full of tour photographs whose only language is rock and roll.  Loudness certainly looked the part.  The set also includes a little reproduction backstage pass, but the main feature is the music.  Diehards are going to love it.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Triumph – Never Surrender (1983)

TRIUMPH – Never Surrender (1983 RCA, 2004 Universal remaster)

Triumph, the other Canadian power trio, scored multiple hits with their sixth album Never Surrender.  “When the Lights Go Down” was a popular music video.  “A World of Fantasy” was a concert staple.  The title track is an absolute (pardon the pun) Triumph of epic songwriting and performance.  It’s easy to hear why Never Surrender is so beloved.

Drummer Gil Moore opens the album with “Too Much Thinking”; steamhammer drums pumping hard.  Rik Emmett comes in with a slaying riff while bassist Mike Levine, the glue, rolls out some determined bass grooves.  Emmett’s talkbox solo is well constructed and extra cool.  This riff rocker has the silhouette of topicality, with Reagan samples and lyrics like “Prophets of doom fearful of the violence, preaching to no one at all.”

Triumph ballads were often too brilliant for their own good.  Not really “ballads” but more like melody-based compositions.  “A World of Fantasy” is one such song, a real accomplishment and unmistakably Triumph.  Triumph always had panache and they backed it with Rik’s strength as a guitar player.  Rik’s voice, sometimes compared to Geddy Lee’s, was well suited to heartfelt rock like this.

Rik Emmett also takes the lead vocal on a battle cry called “All the Way”, preceded by a classical piece entitled “A Minor Prelude”.  Get it?  The guy is a tremendous and monstrously intelligent guitar player.  Rik could have shredded circles with all the other lead guitarists, but that was not his focus.  He realized that you can play really fast as much as you want, but less is actually more.

“All the Way”, which sounded like a battle cry, is actually followed by “Battle Cry”, vocalised by Gil Moore.  It’s a slower, more determined metal track; the heavier side of Triumph.  Rik’s crystal clear chords keep it from being too generic.

Back when albums had sides, the second half opened with “Overture (Procession)”, a short guitar intro backed by Levine’s synth.  It sets the scene for the album centerpiece, “Never Surrender”, which itself is nearly seven minutes of pure undiluted awesome sauce.  Constructed with distinctly different sections, “Never Surrender” was just a tad progressive and more than enough song for the average mortal.

Out in the streets inspiration comes hard,
The joker in the deck keeps handin’ me his card.
Smilin’ friendly he takes me in,
Then breaks my back in a game I can’t win.
Jivin’, hustiln’, what’s it all about?
Everybody always wants the easy way out.
Thirty golden pieces for the Judas kiss,
What’s a nice boy doin’ in a place like this?

Gil Moore’s drums are sometimes considered simple, or basic.  That may be the case, but are they not the perfect backbone on “Never Surrender”?  Who can resist when Gil throws down a big, long drum roll from high to low?  Hey, he might not be Neil Peart, but he works those songs!  His fills here are just as essential as Peart’s in “Tom Sawyer”.  Meanwhile, Rik’s guitar chords can only be described as shiny.  One of the classiest players in rock can really do no wrong here, as he goes from funky chunky strumming to full shred, all within the confines of some damn catchy riffs.

As if that wasn’t enough, Triumph goes for round two on “When the Lights Go Down”.  This time, the acoustic intro is swampy, but soon that riff will hit you square in the face.  Gil Moore’s back on the microphone, so let’s not forget  how hard it is to sing and play drums at the same time.  They had to play this stuff live, and they did!  This is just pure rock, four on the floor.  “Let the party roll!” sings Moore in this paean to the concert stage.

Rik goes for the brightest of melodies on “Writing’s On the Wall”, a really “triumphant” sound, and great way to draw the album to a close.  All that’s left is a soft guitar outro called “Epilogue (Resolution)”.  This beautiful piece illustrates where Rik would go in his future solo career, decades down the road.  Hints of jazz and classical pointed the way.

There are several songs that you don’t want to leave out of your life.  Own Never Surrender.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits (1974)

ALICE COOPER – Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits (1974 Warner)

Picture this:  a kid, just turned 17.  An older uncle named Don Don.  Recording tapes off each other in the summertime.  I didn’t know much of Alice Cooper.  “Teenage Frankenstein”, “The Man Behind the Mask”, and “I Got A Line On You” were the songs I knew best.  I heard a bit of a live version of “I’m Eighteen”, and a Krokus cover of “School’s Out”.  That’s all I knew.  But my uncle had Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits in his tape collection, and I had a blank tape.

I recorded Greatest Hits on one side of a 90 minute cassette.  (Eventually I taped Trash on the other side.)  My impressions at that young age were mixed.  The music sounded old fashioned.  Not at all like his 80s stuff.  While some songs (“Desperado”) flat out lost me, after a couple listens, other tunes started to jump out.

Some of the elements that appealed to me were the lyrics.  “She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice, I said ‘listen baby, you really wouldn’t understand.'” (“Be My Lover”.)  “The Reverend Smith he recognized me and punched me in the nose.”  (“No More Mr. Nice Guy”.)   Of course, “Elected” too — that goes without saying.  Simple, comedic and effective lyrics.

The huge orchestration behind “Hello Hooray” hit me where it counts too.  I grew up on soundtracks and orchestras, so anytime a band used a big bombastic arrangement like that in rock song, it immediately appealed to me.  Even then I was aware of Bob Ezrin from his work with Kiss.

My favourite song on the whole thing was “Teenage Lament ’74”.  What is it about that song?  The old-fashioned jangly rock and roll?  The unforgettable “What are you gonna do?” chorus?  Although it’s fallen by the wayside since, “Teenage Lament” is still an Alice Cooper triumph of triumphs.  On the cassette version, it had a place of honour — second song, side one, right after “I’m Eighteen”.  I couldn’t figure out all the words but I got the jist.  I still love what I perceive to be its old-fashioned sound.  Alice Cooper didn’t need to be heavy to be awesome.  I was learning this.  None of Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits would be considered “heavy” by the standards of the time when I first heard it (1989).

“Is It My Body”, “Under My Wheels”, and “Billion Dollar Babies” were the next songs to slowly reveal themselves to me.  “Muscle of Love” and “Desperado” were the last ones to enter into this new Alice love affair.  Before long, they were all memorized.  Then it was time to start collecting the albums!  Billion Dollar Babies seemed like a wise choice, since I liked so many of its songs on Greatest Hits.  And that’s how a greatest hits album is supposed to work.  It is meant to whet the appetite and make you want more.

Today Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits has been supplanted by more recent, more complete greatest hits discs, remastered for the modern age.  That’s fine and well, but Greatest Hits works better as a first Alice.  The track order, the more concise running time (41 minutes), and of course the classic cover art made this something special.  It’s historic as it was the very last product released by the original Alice Cooper group before Vincent Furnier went solo.  Also worth noting:  all tracks were remixed by Jack Richardson, but you probably won’t even notice.  Completionists, pay attention.

Want an awesome first experience with Alice Cooper?  Follow my lead and check out Greatest Hits.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Trapper – “Illégal” / “Bye bye mon cowboy” (2020 single)

It’s a LeBrain/Superdekes two-fer! Check out his Trapper review by clicking here.

TRAPPER – “Illégal” / “Bye bye mon cowboy” (2020 iTunes single)

Trapper are a Canadian supergroup who gained a bit of extra attention when they got to open for Def Leppard.  Sean Kelly (guitar), Emm Gryner (vocals/bass), Frank Gryner (bass/guitar) and Tim Timleck (drums) impressed everyone with their version of “Illégal” by Corbeau on the concert stage.  Their only EP sold out long ago, but now Trapper are back with a studio version of “Illégal”.  The two-track iTunes single is backed by a surprising cover:  “Bye bye mon cowboy” by Mitsou.  Two Canadian covers, both in French…ballsy move for a single!

“Illégal” has a beautifully chunky riff, and Kelly captures that with a nice crunchy guitar tone.  Emm Gryner’s lead vocal is to die for, squealing in all the right parts, shouting it out loud, and delivering the goods.  She has depth, grit, power — the whole package.  The drums are huge.  When you hear it you’ll be wondering where this song has been your whole life.  And that’s all before you hit the guitar solo, a treat in itself, like something from a classic Bon Jovi track that you never heard before.

Now I’ll be honest about something here.  As a snobbish rock fan in the 1980s, I hated “Bye bye mon cowboy”.  It was on MuchMusic all the time and I grew weary of Mitsou.  But I like Trapper’s version!  I am pretty sure Mitsou didn’t have this much guitar.  Transformed into a rock song, “Bye bye mon cowboy” works!  The groove is perfect and Emm’s delivery is just right.  Big rock hooks, while still retaining everything important about the original.

As for that guitar crunch?  Sean Kelly says “Can’t beat a Les Paul and a Marshall!  (Actually the Headrush Plexi amp simulator.)”  There you have it, players!

I wholeheartedly endorse Trapper’s “Illégal” and “Bye bye mon cowboy” for your patio this summer.  I knew this was going to be good, but I didn’t expect to like “Bye bye mon cowboy” as much as I do.  They rocked it up, put it in my ballpark, and I’m pumping my fists to Mitsou!  Grab ’em on iTunes today, and cross your fingers and hope Trapper have more music coming in the future.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – “Don’t Give Up” (2020 iTunes)

ALICE COOPER – “Don’t Give Up” (2020 iTunes)

Thank God for Alice Cooper! 50 years ago, he was considered by the mainstream to be nothing more than an untalented shock rocker. In 2020, he is inspiring people to keep on keepin’ on. He’s got a powerful message for anyone who needs to hear it.

“Don’t Give Up” is the most direct, the most topical and the least “Alice” song that the Coop has ever done. Why the “least” Alice? Because this time he is not playing a character. He’s not telling some horrifying bedtime story. Or is he? “Don’t Give Up” is about Coronavirus and blatantly so.

“Yeah, I know you’re struggling right now. We all are, in different ways. It’s like a new world that we don’t even know. It’s hard to sleep, even harder to dream. But look, you got seven billion brothers and sisters all in the same boat! So don’t panic. Life has a way of surviving and going on and on. We’re not fragile and we sure don’t break easy.”

This single was recorded in home studios.  It’s accompanied by a cool video expertly produced by Canuck Frank Gryner, using footage sent in by fans.  It is so rare for Alice to really make a statement that pertains to current events.  And it is a very specific song; there are no underlying stories or metaphors to untangle.  But when you think about Coop, it’s not really surprising that he came out of the gates so fast with a song like this.  Alice Cooper is a human being that cares about other human beings.  The message is simple:  keep fighting and don’t give up.  Sometimes people need to actually hear the words.

Musically you could call “Don’t Give Up” a power ballad.  It has a very 80’s guitar figure, with Alice speaking his message over it.  The chorus is more modern, with Alice singing as plaintively as he can.  “Don’t Give Up” is unremarkable as a rock ballad, but as a lyrical accomplishment, Alice has forged new ground 50 years on.  He has written some remarkably powerful words.

“Our enemy is a cold, indiscriminate monster.  It doesn’t care if you’re old or a newborn.  It exists to kill.  You and I are nothing to it.  It has no heart or soul or conscience.  Do we fear it? Yeah! Do we cower before it? Hell no! We’re the blood-n-guts human race. And we win.”

The important thing that Alice says here is that it is alright to be afraid.  Look, Alice has fought demons, and if this scares him then there is no shame in feeling fear.  People are being labelled as cowards for wearing a mask in public.   Alice is right — we will win, and we will do whatever it takes to win.  If you’re scared right now, you tell ’em that Alice Cooper said that’s OK.

3.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Ozzy Osbourne – Live at Budokan (2002)

OZZY OSBOURNE – Live at Budokan (2002 Sony)

Ozzy’s last paint-by-numbers live album was almost two decades ago.  In actuality, you really only need a live one with Randy Rhoads and you’re golden.  But if you’re in the mood for downtuned Ozzy songs, Live at Budokan might be the way to go.

While the new rhythm section of Mike Bordin (Faith No More) and Rob Trujillo (Metallica) do have a positive impact on the sound, Zakk Wylde is tiring.  His constant divebombing all over Randy’s composition “I Don’t Know” just rubs the wrong way.  Then it’s an unremarkable song called “That I Never Had” from Down to Earth.  The most enjoyable thing about it is actually Zakk’s backing vocal.

Ozzy spaces out old songs with new ones so sleep doesn’t take you too soon.  “Believer” is a nice inclusion, since we’ve never had a version of it with Zakk on guitar.  There’s a novelty to it for that reason, so it’s notable.  A crap new song called “Junkie” acts as filler before “Mr. Crowley”.  They used to have an acronym in Star Trek that they would paint on pipes and conduits on the Enterprise:  “GNDN”.  Goes nowhere, does nothing.  That’s “Junkie”.  And “Crowley” just drags.

The last of the new songs here is “Gets Me Through”; the single, you know the one.  The one with the hilariously unimaginative lyric “I’m not the kind of person you think I am, I’m not the Antichrist or the Iron Man”.  We sure do miss Bob Daisley’s lyrical touch.  “Gets Me Through” might be the most paint-by-numbers of any Ozzy track since Zakk joined the band.

Get ready for a whole shit-ton of No More Tears stuff, as Ozzy rolls out four of ’em.  The title track is still great and doesn’t strain Ozzy as much as the earlier songs.  “Mama I’m Coming Home”, well sure, it has its fans.  “I Don’t Want to Change the World” is still a yawn and “Road to Nowhere” fares well.  The crowd sure loves ’em, those familiar hits.  They go nuts for “Crazy Train” which just doesn’t sound right tuned down like this.  Same with “Bark at the Moon”.  Ozzy closes with the only Sabbath track on the disc, “Paranoid”.  The double tracked vocals are obvious and annoyingly artificial sounding.  It’s cool hearing the Faith No More style of drumming all over it though.  Mike Bordin is a tremendous talent but was he the right guy for Ozzy Osbourne?

As the most unessential of all Ozzy releases, Live at Budokan should really be the last one to add to your collection.  If you care, it was available with two covers:  red printing, and black printing.  For extra pain, you could also go for DVD.  Best track:  “Believer”.

1/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Loudness – Masters of Loudness (1996)

LOUDNESS – Masters of Loudness (1996 Warner Japan, 2010 Wounded Bird reissue)

By 1996, Loudness already had three singers, 11 studio albums, and numerous EPs, compilations and live records.  15 years on from their debut album The Birthday Eve, it was time for an anthology.  Masters of Loudness is made up of 29 tracks (eight live ones) including all singers and all eras.  It uses Japanese mixes of some songs, different from their US counterparts, and what appears to be one exclusive new tune.

How the mixture is balanced can only be determined by a solid listen.

The original Loudness commences the anthology, which is mostly in chronological order but not entirely.  Minoru Niihara has always been a hell of a singer, and his melodic singing helps make “Angel Dust” accessible as a speed metal rocker can be.  Like a cross between vintage Scorpions and Priest, pedal fully to the floor.  It doesn’t matter that most of the words are in Japanese.  From the excellent Disillusion album, “Dream Fantasy” is included in all its Maiden-esque glory.  Not “Crazy Doctor” though — Masters of Loudness chooses to include some of the biggest and best songs in live form instead.  This is an unfortunate though popular strategy used on numerous anthologies and it is a win/lose proposition.  In the “win” column, it breaks up monotony, represents more releases, and allows you to hear lesser-known versions of popular songs.  On the other side of the coin, it means you don’t get the best known versions of the best songs.  You get, frankly, inferior versions of possibly the only songs you know.  And that’s why it’s unfortunate.

The third track “Speed” is one such live inclusion, from 1983’s Live-Loud-Alive.  It does allow you to hear how hot Loudness were on stage so early in their career.  The entire Thunder in the East album is bafflingly skipped over.  It is possible, from the Japanese perspective, that Thunder in the East is not as significant as it is here.  Instead we jump ahead to 1986’s Shadows of War (released here as Lightning Strikes) and 1987’s Hurricane Eyes.  The Japanese mix of “Let It Go”, their most commercial track, is notably different.  The vocals are more distant and there are additional shouts and bits of guitar included.  The US mix was more streamlined and polished for radio.  “Shadows of War” and “S.D.I.” are also Japanese mixes each awesome in its own right.  “Shadows of War” just has the vibe, right in the middle of darkness and light.  Meanwhile “S.D.I.” is an iconic thrash that goes down easy thanks to Minoru Niihara’s vocal prowess.

This anthology skips past the final release with Niihara (1988’s Jealousy EP) and picks up with new vocalist Mike Vescera, their first and only American member.  Strangely the first Vescera track is “Slap in the Face” which is actually from his last release with the band, a 1991 EP.  It’s biting and heavy, but the loss of Minoru Niihara changed not only the voice of Loudness, but also their identity.  Where they used to sound uniquely Japanese, Vescera made them sound like a band from anywhere.  He was and is a great singer with grit and remarkable range and power.  He could certainly take on Minoru in terms of vocal ability.  But they sounded less like Loudness.  That said, “Slap in the Face” is a heavy stomper that was perfectly in line with the direction bands like Metallica and Megadeth were going in the early 90s.

“You Shook Me” (their biggest track with Vescera) and “Demon Disease” represent 1989’s Soldier of Fortune album which still has a cult following.  Loudness only made two albums with Mike, and that era is unfortunately weighted too heavily on this set.  Nothing against the songs themselves, but this brief period gets far more disc time than all of the Niihara era.

Mike’s final Loudness album was 1991’s On the Prowl which mixed new material and new English re-recordings of selections from some of the older Japanese albums.  One of the new ones, “Down N’ Dirty” is predictably a stumble.  It sounds like some sassy band from Hollywood, not a band with the regal history of Loudness.  Trying to sound like Poison?  Perhaps.  At least “In the Mirror” and “Sleepless Nights” sound like Loudness, and they should, being re-recordings of the same songs from The Law of Devil’s Island.  Truthfully, Vescera sounds heroic here, like a true metal warrior come to rid the town of its evil.

A trio of live tracks with Vescera singing close off the first disc.  At the time of release these would have been considered rarities, but in 2009 a full live album with Vescera was issued called Live Loudest at the Budokan ’91.  These are cool live tracks and help fill in some songs that were missing from earlier.  The power ballad “Never Enough” is a remake of an old B-side called “Silent Sword”.  The cheese factor is cranked up, but let’s face it, this is the kind of song people were having hits with until grunge changed that forever.  Akira Takasaki’s guitar solo is delectable.  Then finally it’s “Crazy Doctor”, possibly the best riff that Akira ever wrote.  Vescera has no issues with the notes or the power necessary to deliver them effectively.  Finally the CD ends with a live cut of the very first song from the very first album:  “Loudness”.  It’s quite good and an excellent showcase of Mike’s abilities, not to mention the extended Takasaki solo, a composition until itself, where he shows Eddie Van Halen how guitar tapping is done.

Loudness changed once again, when Mike Vescera bailed to join Yngwie J. Malmsteen.  They also lost original bassist Masayoshi Yamashita at this time.  The second CD (mostly) represents the Masaki Yamada (E-Z-O) era of Loudness, their current singer at the time of release.  With that in context, you can understand why so much time is dedicated to Masaki, who only had two Loudness studio albums under his belt so far.

The first Masaki, 1992’s Loudness, has five of its ten tracks represented here.  They selected five of the best:  “Pray for the Dead”, “Slaughter House”, “Black Widow”, “Hell Bites”, and “Firestorm”.  By and large, the new Loudness was focused on heavy grooves.  Banging heads was a priority once again.  “Firestorm” thrashes as fast and heavy and any vintage Loudness classic.  The big difference was Masaki’s clearly noncommercial voice.  Unlike Vescera or even Minoru, you can’t really imagine Masaki’s songs on the radio.  It was, however, the 1990s, and Masaki was able to harness the altera-heavy going on at that time.

From the 1994 live album Once and For All, “Waking the Dead” is included, another song from the first Masaki album.  Then finally it’s “Crazy Night”, Loudness’ biggest and most beloved hit from Thunder in the East.  Strangely though, instead of the Masaki live version from Once and For All, we are back to Mike Vescera again.  It’s a fine version indeed, but this confusion could have been avoided by just putting the studio version on CD 1.  It’s probably confusing for the listener to be bouncing around from one singer to another.

There are four songs from the second Masaki album, 1994’s Heavy Metal Hippies.  This is when Loudness started their real 1990s evolution, focusing less on metal and loosely expanding into other styles.  They also lost two more members at this point.  Bassist Taiji Sawada, who replaced Masayoshi Yamashita in 1992, was out and Akira played bass on Heavy Metal Hippies.  Original drummer Munetaka Higuchi also left and was replaced by E-Z-O drummer Hirotsugu Homma.  By the numbers, at this point Loudness was actually more E-Z-O.  The change is audible in the music, still heavy, but less melodic and more modern (“Howling Rain” being an exception).  Though Heavy Metal Hippies was released only in Japan, they still managed to get a metal big namer to produce:  Chris Tsangarides.

The Loudness lineup solidified once more with bassist Naoto Shibata, who appears on the live tracks “Desperation, Desecration” and “S.D.I” from 1995’s Loud ‘n’ Raw.  Yes, “S.D.I.” is the only song to appear twice on this anthology.  Why “S.D.I.”?  Why not.  It’s important to have live versions of old classics, but with the new singer at the microphone.  Unfortunately in a comparison between Masaki and Minoru, Minoru wins.  He wrote the song for his own voice, and Masaki’s growly style is barely compatible.

Masters of Loudness saved the best for last:  “Master of the Highway”, an excellent song that seems to be an exclusive.  It puts the focus right onto the riff, a sharp Takasaki blitz of six-string chunk.  Masaki has never sounded so menacing as when growling this tune.

Black stars!
Coming down.
Power!
Pedal to the metal.
Night rider,
Machines of steel.
I am the master! Master of the highway!
Yeah yeah! Oh yeah!

As Masaki tears off through the “demon night”, he only turns up the menace further.  “You’re with the master!  Master of the highway!”  Akira then lays down a face melter of a solo, and before you can get back up, it’s all over.

Rare is the single track that is worth buying a 2 CD anthology just to get, but there it is.

It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall and to know exactly what the thinking process is in making a release like this.  How was each track decided upon?  Why was there a Mike Vescera version of “Crazy Night” right in the middle of a disc that is otherwise entirely Masaki Yamada material?  Did somebody higher up say “Nope, we need a melodic version of the song, put on an earlier one”?  And why live versions of such big hits anyway?

Masters of Loudness can be broken down this way:

  • Suffers from too many live substitutions.
  • Minimizes the Minoru Niihara era in favour of later singers.
  • Breaks chronological order twice.

But it can also be said that Masters of Loudness has:

  • 29 awesome Loudness tracks.
  • One really smoking “new” track in “Master of the Highway”.
  • A representative slice of every Loudness lineup from 1981-1996.

As always, cost will be a factor and Japanese imports are rarely cheap.  If you can afford it, it’s worth picking up Masters of Loudness and of course, playing it loud.

3.5/5 stars

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Motley Crue – “Dr. Feelgood” (1989 cassette single)

MOTLEY CRUE – “Dr. Feelgood” (1989 Elektra cassette single)

I have a long history with collecting singles.  Record Store Tales Part 4: A Word About B-Sides was all about the discovery of exclusive songs, at the Zellers store in Stanley Park Mall.  The whole point in buying singles, to me, has always been acquiring rare tracks or rare versions of tracks.  Still, if you bought a single and the B-side ended up being on the album anyway, as long as it’s a good song, I don’t complain too much.

Back in 1989 we were all eagerly awaiting the release of Motley Crue’s forthcoming opus, Dr. Feelgood, their first “sober” album and first under the guidance of Bob Rock.  The first single was the title track, and on the little speakers of my radio, it crushed.  In Getting More Tale #656: The One They Call Dr. Feelgood, I had this to say:

“I tried to catch ‘Feelgood’ on the radio and record it, but failed. Instead I bought the cassette single at the local Zellers store. Considering how many tracks the band worked up for Dr. Feelgood, I hoped they would be releasing non-album B-sides. They did not. Instead, ‘Feelgood’ was backed by “Sticky Sweet”, probably the weakest album track.”

This single, bought at the very same Zellers store in the very same mall, is still fun to hit ‘play’ on.  The old familiar cassette test tone precedes the song, a fun nostalgic reminder of the old days.  Then the riff caves in your skull, with no “Terror ‘n Tinseltown” intro.  I suppose if you were a stickler, you could say this version of “Feelgood” without “T.n.T.” was exclusive to the single.  It was pretty easy to separate the two on CD though.

Although certainly overplayed today, I can remember what we all liked about “Feelgood”.  The heavy groove was refreshing and quite unlike other bands getting airplay that summer:  Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Aerosmith.  Then there’s Mick Mars’ solo and talkbox bit, still enjoyable.  I’ve probably heard it 1000 times, but “Dr. Feelgood” still plays good on air guitar.

Flipping the tape, the B-side “Sticky Sweet” perpetually sucks.  Motley Crue had a couple unreleased tracks to choose from that would have been better than “Sticky Sweet”, such as “Rodeo”.  But as revealed in an old issue of Hit Parader, some of those tracks were initially earmarked for a followup album called Motley Crue: The Ballads.  Regardless of the rationale, “Sticky Sweet” stinks like a poo stuck to the bottom of your shoe after you’ve already tracked it into the house.  In its favour, it does have a neat funky instrumental section in the middle, but that can’t save a shitty song.  And the thing is, even if an unreleased B-side was never in consideration, why couldn’t they have just picked a better album track, like “Slice of Your Pie” or “She Goes Down”?  Maybe they knew they were sitting on an album with five singles so they started by rolling out the shittiest B-sides?

Whatever!  The A-side may be timeless but the score must account for the atrocious B-side.

3/5 stars

 

REVIEW: ZZ Top – Chrome, Smoke & BBQ (2003 limited edition BBQ shack)

ZZ TOP –  Chrome, Smoke & BBQ (2003 Warner limited edition BBQ shack version)

Though it seems an outlandish thought today, there was once a time when if you desired to hear original ZZ Top music, you couldn’t do that on CD.  You had to purchase original ZZ Top LPs.  In 1987, most of the original ZZ Top albums were issued on CD as part of the ZZ Top Six Pack, which featured remixed percussion to make them sound more like Eliminator and Afterburner.  Needless to say this was a very unpopular idea, though it didn’t stop the Six Pack from selling.  The original ZZ Top albums were finally given a CD reissue in 2013.  Until then, your best bet on compact disc was to buy the 4 CD Chrome, Smoke & BBQ anthology.

Because Chrome, Smoke & BBQ features original mixes and a helping of rarities, it still makes for an enjoyable listen and valuable collectible today.  The limited edition version came housed in a box like a little BBQ shack, but both have the same four discs of bluesy, greasy ZZ rock.  A well-assembled anthology can make for a great listen even well after its expiry date, and this is one such set.

Disc 1 of Chrome, Smoke & BBQ features three tracks from Billy Gibbons’ first band the Moving Sidewalks.  The guitar work is brilliant even in Billy’s youth.  These tracks are notably more psychedelic than ZZ Top.  The year was 1969, the same year as the first ZZ Top single “Miller’s Farm” / “Salt Lick”.  This early version of ZZ Top (credited as “embryonic ZZ Top”) was a transition from Moving Sidewalks and didn’t feature Frank Beard nor Dusty Hill.  Organ on a ZZ Top song is an unusual sound, and it’s quite prominent on “Miller’s Farm”.  It’s a pretty standard blues with the emphasis on the keys and with one foot solidly in 60s rock.  “Salt Lick” has a bit more of the mid-tempo ZZ groove, but the with the organ still part of the whole.  Chrome, Smoke & BBQ remains the easiest way to obtain this rare single.

ZZ Top’s First Album takes the spotlight next with three tracks including “Brown Sugar”, the first “real” ZZ Top track.  An impactful one it is, and so obviously ZZ Top.  It seems by the time the right three guys got together, the ZZ Top sound was born.  “Brown Sugar” is so essential to the ZZ Top sound that maybe the box set should have opened with it, chronology be damned!  Dusty’s pulse on bass is already present, and Frank’s sheer style adds some much needed character.  Then “Just Got Back From Baby’s” has the spare nocturnal blues that is a ZZ signature.

The next three ZZ Top albums – Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres and Fandango! are featured much more prominently with seven tracks apiece.  This part of the set is deep with essential music.  “Francene”, obviously “Francene”, the catchiest song during this part of history, is present and accounted for.  (Even in Spanish!)  For relentless groove, ZZ Top never nailed one as hard as “Just Got Paid”, slide guitar right in the pocket.  “Chevrolet” showed how they could just lay back.  For shuffles, “Bar-B-Q” got the spice you need.  “Sure Got Cold After the Rain” covers the sad, spare blues that Billy’s guitar can evoke.  The music goes on, and on:  “La Grange”, “Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers”, “Heard It on the X”, “Blue Jean Blues”, “Tush”.  Though the songs in between are all excellent as well, it’s hard to ignore the hit power of these tracks.

Six tracks from Tejas feature on this set, still more than half the album.  The ZZ Top direction was gradually making tentative steps towards modernizing.  “It’s Only Love”, a bluesy country pop, sounds like something new.  They hadn’t left anything behind though, as told by the menacing “Arrested for Driving While Blind”.  It’s a cleaner, more studio-driven sound, as heard on “El Diablo” with its subtle overdubs and dynamics.  “Enjoy and Get it On” is a nice sentiment, with the slide all greased up and ready to go.  Two of the most interesting of the Tejas tracks are the quiet instrumental “Asleep in the Desert” and the twangy “She’s a Heartbreaker”.

At this point ZZ Top took a break to decompress after years of consecutive touring and recording.  The Best of ZZ Top came out during this break, but what was going on behind the scenes was to be far more important down the road.  ZZ Top’s image began its final evolution when Gibbons and Hill returned from vacation with matching full length beards. Their next album Degüello allowed the music to evolve as well.  Six songs from Degüello represent this period, along with a rare radio spot advertising the album.

ZZ Top’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” is iconic enough that many people probably assume it’s an original.  What was original was “Cheap Sunglasses”, a staggering hangover of a track — the new ZZ Top.  Same with “Maniac Mechanic”, a track so bizarre that you could mistake it for Zappa.  Meanwhile “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” has the laid back, cruisin’ ZZ Top vibe that fans always loved.  “A Fool For Your Stockings” showed that Gibbons could still play the blues, too.

Another six tracks from El Loco account for the last hits before the MTV generation took hold.  “Leila”, a 50s inspired ballad is clearly an experiment albeit a successful one.  As is the surf rocker “Tube Snake Boogie”, a track unlike any ZZ Top ever attempted before.  Another ballad, “It’s So Hard” is not out of place, with its roots in soul music.  “Pearl Necklace” has surf vibes but is most memorable for its dirty double entendre.  “Heaven, Hell or Houston” is even weirder than “Maniac Mechanic”.  It’s quite clear that ZZ Top were stretching out, while still maintaining a foot in their bluesy, rock and roll roots.

And then came MTV, the music videos, the car, and the girls.  The music was laden with sequencers and electronic percussion, but this unlikely combination is the one that really struck oil.  Black gold, Texas tea, and platinum records.  Eight tracks from Eliminator are included here, almost the whole album minus three.  Only “Thug”, “I Need You Tonight” and “Bad Girl” are left behind.  So you get all the hits, and then some.  “I Got the Six” had to be on here, a dirty but slick little favourite from the day.  “Dirty Dog” is a fun also-ran too, but didn’t need to be on a box set.

When ZZ Top found their successful formula, they really ran with it, right into the next album Afterburner.  As we know a sequel rarely tops an original, but the album still features eight songs, and this is where Chrome, Smoke & BBQ begins to stumble.  By featuring so many songs from this period, the box set is really unfairly weighted.  Surely another few tracks could have been included from ZZ Top’s First Album instead of so many from Afterburner and Recycler.  “Can’t Stop Rockin'” and “Woke Up With Wood” could have been dropped, but let’s keep “Sleeping Bag”, “Stages”, “Rough Boy”, Delirious, “Velcro Fly”,  and “Planet of Women”.  Around Afterburner, ZZ Top had taken their music to its most commercial extreme.  They decided to reduce, though not remove, technology on the third album of the MTV trilogy Recycler.  Notable from this period:  “Concrete and Steel”, “My Head’s In Mississippi”, “Give It Up”, “2000 Blues” and “Doubleback”.

ZZ Top switched from Warner to RCA for their next studio album 1994’s Antenna, and nothing from that era onwards is included.  There is still some more music on this box set to enjoy.  In 1990, ZZ Top recorded a cover of “Reverberation (Doubt)” by Roky Erickson for the tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye.  Gratefully, this ZZ Top rarity is included here.  You can note the Recycler-era sequencers, but they compliment the psychedelic track nicely.  This is followed by the two “new” songs that ZZ Top recorded for 1992’s Greatest Hits.  “The corniest Elvis song ever” is “Viva Las Vegas”, sung by Dusty Hill, and overproduced to the gills.  Huge hit of course.  “Gun Love” is also included.

Disc 4 ends with six “medium rare” tracks.  Some are actually super rare.  These include a spanish version of “Francene” with Dusty Hill singing.  It sounds like thie audio could be taken from an actual vinyl single.  A live version of “Cheap Sunglasses” comes from a 1980 promo-only single, and it smokes.  Then there are some dance mixes from 12″ singles, easily the most skippable part of this box set.  None of these will be played regularly by you, the listener.  Especially not “Viva Las Vegas”.

The booklet included with Chrome, Smoke & BBQ is impressive on its own.  It’s packed with music and text, including a track by track commentary by the band.  “Seems like all our songs are about dicks and pussies,” says Frank Beard.

Limited edition box sets are fun to get while they last.  Chrome, Smoke & BBQ boasts its box shaped like a steel shack, including corrugated roof.  (It’s actually great because it doesn’t collect dust!)  Include the box, all four CDs are safely housed in individual jewel cases.  If you dig inside a little more you’ll find cut-out characters to add to your BBQ shack display.  You could scan and print these cut-outs yourself.  Enjoy a picnic table, ribs, sausages, cacti, and of course the guys from ZZ Top themselves (on a bike, or disembarked).  Also hidden in the box is an animated flip-book.  See the video below for a quick demonstration.

As with many box sets, tracklists could use a little tweaking and everybody will have their own ideas for how to fix that.  Perhaps instead of dumping all those remixes at the end, they could have been included chronologically so the set doesn’t end on such a…tepid concept as the extended dance remix.  The set could certainly use some balancing away from Afterburner and Recycler with more focus on the earlier stuff.  The exclusive rarities are adequate and appropriate for a set of this stature.  Not too few, not too many.  The ZZ Top completist will want this set for them and will still enjoy giving it a complete spin from time to time.

The regular edition will do nicely, but if you can find a complete limited version for a good price, don’t hesitate to snag it.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: My Wicked Twin – 3 Engines (2020)

MY WICKED TWIN – 3 Engines (2020)

Like a bolt out of the blue, My Wicked Twin (Brent & Brian Doerner) have a new album out, their fourth, called 3 Engines.  A tight set with 10 songs in the 3-4 minute range, 3 Engines rocks.  Let’s have a listen.

“Gone Nomad”, the heavier than hell opener, is a tricky number that recalls Max Webster, but amped up.  “I’ve got a gun if we disagree,” sings Brent in an electronically treated voice, appropriate to the tune.  By the second track, “Light From Within”, we are in more traditional hard rock territory…until the corner bar piano kicks in!  Clearly nobody was afraid of taking chances.  The dark guitar hook is terrific on this one, as is the melodic bass.  Melody is also the focus of “Things I Wanna Do” a quirky modern sounding track with programmed beats and patches of keyboard.  Dig the engines revving!  “Give and Take” sounds like a natural followup, and it’s interesting to hear so much focus on the vocal melodies this time out.  Clearly a lot of effort went into them.

“Escaping California” has a dreamy quality, with spare use of keyboards that set the scene.  But it’s the following song, “House on the Highway”, that is the most fun.  Who doesn’t love a little banjo?  It adds variety and a little down-home quality and there’s nothing wrong with that.  “House on the Highway” for the win.

For heavy, you want “Digital Veins”.  The guitars and keys complement each other nicely.  “Rock and roll is what I am used to,” sings Brent, but he’s also not afraid to stretch out within those confines.  There’s a cool 80s vibe to “Digital Veins”.  Then “Half Broken” has an interesting rhythm to accompany the cool keys and guitars.  Killer solo here.  “Running Out of Time” has an accelerated pace but also some seriously tasty twang.  The album ends with “Brain Dance”, a cool party tune with a serious thump.  Wicked guitars, with varied tones and licks.

3 Engines is different, and that’s good.  The keyboards add an atmospheric tone, and it’s not dissimilar to old Max Webster.  The electronic treatment on the drums and vocals works, and complement the music.  My Wicked Twin have taken some leaps and bounds on this album, and ended up with some accomplished tunes.  Not for headbangin’.  3 Engines rocks, but it rocks smart.

4/5 stars

Additional musicians:

Paul Chapman – guitar solo on “Running Out of Time”
Jim Mclean – guitar and co-writer on “Light”
Rob Kemp – guitar on “Light”
Graham Smith – bass on “House” and “Light”